What do we actually know?
Of the basic news questions, what, where, when, who, and why, we know a little about what, where, and when.
I say a little because the 'what' that we know is the result: two "improvised explosive devices" exploded [our understanding of what exploded is also still evolving] and three people were killed and over 150 injured. We know about the action of some of the responders, especially the medical response. There is a lot of 'what' that we don't know- all the action that led to the explosion or what he or they are doing now, whatever security precautions were taken by the race officials, and a myriad things we haven't even thought of yet.
The President, in his short statement today, took it from the concrete and descriptive to abstract interpretation:
"This was a heinous and cowardly act and given what we now know about what took place, the FBI is investigating it as an act of terrorism,"How much was he thinking about the grilling he got over how fast he called the Benghazi attack terrorism?
The explosions happened near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. But we don't know where they were planned, where the bomber(s) is now, where another explosion might be planned.
Again, we just know the timing of the explosions - the Anchorage Daily News reports it as "shortly before 2:50pm about four hours into the race." We know nothing about how long this has been in the planning and whether another time is already planned. We don't know when suspects will be apprehended or a trial will be held.
We really know very little about what, where, and when. But compared to who and why it seems like a lot.
We know very little about the victims and while we all have concern for them, I think we're most curious about who planted the explosive devices. The President narrowed it down to:
"a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic, or was the act of a malevolent individual."Foreign or domestic covers the likely universe of suspects, but I think the rest of this may be a bit narrow. When exactly does a 'group,' say, become an 'organization'? And what turns a group or an organization into a 'terrorist organization'? By detonating the explosive at the Boston Marathon, the perpetrator became a 'terrorist' if he/they didn't fit that category before. But I suspect the President's words imply an existing organization with an already existing identity as terrorists. But is that an identity they have themselves or an identity the US government or some other authoritative body puts on them? (Were the original Boston Tea Party participants patriots or terrorists?)
I'm not trying to question whether this was a terrorist act, but rather whether this might have been carried out by an organization whose existence is known, but hasn't previously been considered terrorist. Or the more chilling possibility of someone trying to stir up fear for political gain. (I'm reading The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin which begins with apartment bombings around Moscow and other Russian locations that were blamed on Chechen rebels, but were apparently the work of the Russian Federal Security Service to build fear and nationalism among the Russian voters.)
And 'malevolent individual' again leaves out that in-between category of group. Plus it would seem that 'malevolent individual' merely tells us it's a person with the intent to do evil to others - not anything we didn't already know. What if it was a delusional person who thought he was saving himself or others this way? I'm merely saying we shouldn't close off reasonable options.
Terrorist groups tend to take credit for their projects. We've been told no group has claimed credit and that the Pakistani Taliban denied responsibility. Nor, apparently, had there been prior warning. Though it's probably too early to be sure about that.
He also told us who in terms of people in charge by telling us he was briefed by his National Security Team which includes
"FBI Director Mueller, Attorney General Holder, Secretary Napolitano, and my Counterterrorism and Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco"
Ultimately, this seems to be the question most on people's minds. The main clues we have at this point relate to the target, or what we assume to be the target, the Boston Marathon. What does it represent? Who would want to attack that symbol?
Boston: Irish, liberal, Catholic come to mind. Boston Tea Party, abolition, elite education (Harvard and MIT plus a bunch of other universities), Logan Airport where 9/11 terrorists started, Red Sox, Cheers.
Marathon: Running marathons is an 'achiever' sport. It's not something people do lightly and for the Boston Marathon you have to qualify by running other marathons. It's a non-motor sport. An individual sport (not a team sport - though there are groups that run as teams.) It takes endurance and planning.
There are lots of possible motives there. But it could be that the bomber is from Boston and it was just a convenient target. Or that this was a personal attack on someone disguised to look like a terrorist attack. (Probably not likely, but it should still be a backup motive until they're certain.)
It's more likely that the culprit(s) will be found through following the evidence he left at the scene, through photos or videos, or through a tip from an insider or someone who knows the bomber (like the Unabomber's brother sending info), rather than starting with the motivation. But considering motivation certainly helps law enforcement prioritize their efforts. (Though I would expect the bomber to have been well disguised so the photos will not be that easy to interpret.)
It seems prudent at times like this to take everything you hear with a grain of salt. There's much that isn't known. But the authorities also know, but aren't telling. (Obama took no questions after his statement today, suggesting to me he does know more and doesn't want to have to evade questions.)
And, in a day or two, we can probably expect a full press Republican attack on why the US was not prepared for this event and how poorly the President responded. That's just how they work.
But for a day or two, everyone will hold their tongues, make obligatory statements about unity and prayers for the victims and their families.
Most average Americans will be sending genuine love and prayers to the victims and their families and paying special attention to the people around us. Perhaps we can tap into these feelings of shock and outrage to understand how the people of Iraq and Afghanistan feel after the bombings that kill civilians there. And how some might raise an eyebrow about our reaction today in contrast to our response to the events in their countries where far more are killed this way and where we have such a large presence.